INTERNATIONAL perception of Colombia, its capital city and its football was, for many years, negative and the very mention of the country would conjure up images of guerrilla warfare, drug cartels and the Bobby Moore bracelet affair of 1970. Thankfully, they are in a better place than they were, and crime is at a 40-year low, although according to Transparency International’s index, Colombia is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
From a football perspective, Colombia remains a passionate nation although their golden “narco-induced” period and the more recent upturn have now passed. Even so, Colombia are currently number 10 in FIFA’s rankings and they are among the top 10 player exporters in the world – almost 400 Colombians are currently playing abroad in professional football.
Bogotá, which was one of the world’s most violent cities in the 1990s, is a colourful place with a temperamental climate. It is now a tourist destination and a city rich in diversity and has a cosmopolitan history. Like many Latin American metropolitan centres, Bogotá has significant imbalances around the distribution of wealth, but its poverty rate, at 12.4%, is around half the national average.
Coffee not football
Bogotá, despite being home to two of the country’s big footballing names, Independiente Santa Fe and Millonarios, was not where Colombian football took root, that came in the sea port of Barranquilla (the birthplace of pop singer Shakira) in the early 20th century and was influenced by visiting sailors. Right up until the second world war, Colombia was better known for its coffee than its football, the beverage forming an astonishing 80% of national exports.
After the war, Colombian football became embroiled in an international sporting controversy. Colombian clubs broke away from the national association and therefore, were no longer part of FIFA. The new body, free of FIFA’s restrictions, set out to create an attractive, international league of all-star players, offering huge sums of money to lure top stars. Alfredo di Stefano, who later became the kingpin in Real Madrid’s European Cup successes, and a number of fellow Argentinians, as well as players from England, were acquired, including Stoke City’s international centre half Neil Franklin.
Clubs like Santa Fe and Millonarios sounded glamorous to Europeans, but the reality was far from the sun-drenched utopia that was sold to them. Regardless, the new league was popular, drawing big crowds and the football was fast, attacking and full of goals. Nevertheless, it didn’t work out for the English players, who found the extreme poverty startling and also felt unsafe owing to the civil war that was underway.
Millonarios had an outstanding team known as El Ballet Azul (the blue ballet), which included Di Stefano, Adolfo Pedernera, Nestor Rossi and Julio Cozzi. Eventually, the team’s success and a global tour that took them to Spain, turned Di Stefano’s head and he left for Madrid and more conventional triumphs. The duration of El Dorado was brief and for a long while, Colombia were off the international radar.
Bogotá’s top teams, Santa Fe and Millonarios, were both formed in the 1940s and established by academics. Today, they share the Estadio El Campin, a 36,000-capacity stadium inaugurated in 1938 and sitting in the El Chapinero district, now a trendy neighbourhood popular with hipsters and media types.
It’s the stadium where Colombia won their solitary Copa America in 2001 and if the country had hosted the 1986 World Cup, as originally planned, doubtless where the final would have been held. Although Colombia withdrew in late-1982 due to economic reasons, they were the only major South American country not to default on its debt in the 1980s.
The clashes between Santa Fe and Millonarios are known as El Clásico Capitalino, the capital classic. Attendances vary, depending on whether the derby is in the first-stage Apertura or the second-phase Clausura, but the atmosphere is always intense. In the 2019 Clausura, both clubs averaged 13,000 for their home games, but in the Apertura, Millonarios averaged 16,000 and Santa Fe 10,000.
The Bogotá clubs are not the best supported in Colombia, the highest average gates are seen at Atlético Nacional and Independiente, both from Medellin, Colombia’s second city. These two clubs, allegedly, benefitted from investments by the infamous Pablo Escobar, the drug baron that amassed personal wealth of US$ 25 billion from smuggling Cocaine. At one point, 80% of the world’s Cocaine came from Colombia and the crime rate soared, which included the tragic and shocking death of Colombian defender Andres Escobar, who was murdered in 1994 after scoring in his own goal in a World Cup game that a drug gang had placed a gambled on.
Furthermore, the editor of El Tiempo, after writing that football in Colombia was plagued by drug money, was kidnapped and held for eight months. This was the so-called Narco Fútbol era which also included referees being threatened and even killed and corruption among officials.
Millonarios had their own connection to the Escobar world in their owner during the 1980s, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, commonly known as “The Mexican”. This period, which resulted in two league titles, is now an embarrassment to the club and its fans. After an assistant referee was murdered in 1989, the league programme was cancelled and Millonarios’ owner killed himself following a battle with police. The drug cartels were controlled to a certain degree, although drugs themselves were not.
Millonarios lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis and by 2010, they were bankrupt. This culminated in the club being acquired by a supporter group known as Azul & Blanco SA.
Their rivals, Santa Fe, have also had their image tarnished by involvement with a drugs cartel. In 2010, they were accused of money laundering after police intercepted two large cash amounts, totalling the equivalent of around US$ 40 million, which had been sent by drug trafficker Daniel “El Loco” Barres.
While Millonarios and, to a lesser extent, Santa Fe, were the dominant forces in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, since the 1990s, the Medellin clubs have been more successful, including Atlético’s two Copa Libertadores triumphs in 1989 and 2016. The closest a Bogotá club has come to lifting South America’s premier club competition was in 2013 when Santa Fe reached the semi-final, narrowly losing to Paraguay’s Olimpia.
League titles have been rare for both clubs in the 21st century, Millonarios winning two Clausuras in 2012 and 2017 and Santa Fee finishing top in the Apertura in 2012 and Clausura in 2014 and 2016.
Before football was suspended earlier this year, Santa Fe were faring better than their rivals, losing just one of their eight league games, while Millonarios had won just one of their seven fixtures. The two sides met in March at El Campina in front of 25,000 people, drawing 0-0. Santa Fe have benefitted from the the goals of new signing Diego Valdes, a 29 year-old striker who was signed from Deportes Tolima in the close season.
Bogotá has a number of other clubs, not least another Primera A team in La Equidad, who play at the 8,000-capacity Metropolitano de Techo stadium. Their nickname is the Aseguradores – the insurers, which explains the club’s roots, which date back to 1982 when the club was formed by La Equidad Seguros, an insurance cooperative.
La Equidad are watched by around 3,500 people and struggle to compete on many levels, but they did win the Copa Colombia in 2008. They share their stadium with two other Bogotá clubs, Tigres and Bogotá FC.
These clubs are relatively young clubs and have gone through a number of name changes and have both threatened to leave the city because of lack of support. They are both currently in Primera B and Tigres were propping up the rest at the time of suspension.
When we can we expect to see Colombian football return? This is a million peso question but there has been talk of it coming back in July, although President Ivan Duque doesn’t want the country to be the first in South America to resume.
When it does happen, Bogotá will also welcome back the tourists, for pre-virus visitors to Colombia were at an all-time high, some 4.5 million per year, of which around 60% came from the US and central America. People still have to be careful, but the country has come a considerable distance since a dark period in its history.